Editor Mike Pitts
Mark Horton has a horrible trip to Panama
Nowadays we can hardly get our trowels out without television cameras rolling and being asked instantly to pronounce how some miserable sherd we have just found changed the course of Western Civilisation.
So it was with trepidation that last January I went out to Darien with a film crew, to investigate the failed Scottish colony (1698-1700) in the jungles of Panama. I had worked at the site in 1979. The torrential rains had long eroded the 17th century ground level, leaving a scatter of pottery and artefacts: we had recovered virtually everything. There might be no finds, and in television terms only a few humps and bumps left from the hastily erected ‘Fort St Andrew’.
How were we going to make a decent programme? We could tell the story, which is horrible enough, of how the Scots planned this empire in the Central American jungle, where the commerce of the world would be carried on mules from the Pacific Ocean. The promoter, a London Scot named William Paterson (who a few years earlier had founded the more successful Bank of England) persuaded the Scottish Parliament to establish a trading company which would bring Scotland great wealth. People flocked to invest their life savings (some estimates suggest as much as 40% of Scotland’s then GDP) and thousands of volunteers lined up to sail into the unknown.
They chose a horrible disease ridden swamp on the Atlantic coast of Panama, with one of the highest rainfalls in the world. They brought nothing to plant, trade goods that were useless to the local Indians (including bonnets, blue paper and Bibles), weapons that didn’t work and not enough to eat.
Their fatal miscalculation was to go to the heart of the Spanish empire. The Spanish were not going to tolerate these ‘Scottish Pirates’. The English, briefly at peace with Spain, would not help. In March 1700 the Spanish army besieged the fort. Of 4,000 eager colonists 2,500 died, and of eight ships only one leaky hulk returned to Scotland.
Unfortunately for us, the Scots had two weeks to clear up their New Edinburgh and ship their possessions, leaving little behind. Even their timber buildings were difficult to find: while there were lots of post-hole like features, most turned out to be land crab burrows.
An artefact concentration became the excavation site, and it was here the favourite find emerged. At first it looked like a modern cartridge end, but as I turned it over, I realised it was much more elaborate. I cleaned off the mud, and as cameras rolled offered that instant opinion one always regrets. It was a brass mechanism – a watch or something – and as the shape of the nomen emerged, there could be no doubt: it was a portable sundial. When it was cleaned, one could read the numbers on the dial and see that the nomen still lifted up and down for storage.
How did it work? There must have been a compass in the cover to orientate the instrument, and the nomen would be lifted up to cast a shadow on the numbers. But the fixed nomen is set at an angle right for the latitude of Britain, so it could not have been very accurate close to the equator. When we tried it out in Panama, it worked to within 90 minutes or so – one could tell the time better by looking at the sun! Such sundials are rare. Ours must have been the personal possession of an officer. Could it even have been Paterson’s?
So we got our programme, and that inevitable quote ‘the owner of this little instrument must have realised that time was running out on the colony….’ We mocked up a replica for the dramatic reconstruction (filmed in Cornwall), and a great story emerged, so archaeology can live another day on the telly. And how did we change Western Civilisation? The Scots agreed to the Act of Union only if they got all their money back from the Darien Scheme, and Britannia (with lots of Scots involved) went on to rule the world.
Horton is Head of Bristol University’s Department of Archaeology, and a presenter of BBC2’s ‘Time Flyers’. ‘Darien, Disaster in Paradise’ was shown on BBC2 on July 10, 2003
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005